The question of the “Ship of Theseus” is one of those pesky paradox questions that predates Star Trek transporter malfunctions by several thousand years. It’s a question that is fundamentally about the nature of identity and self-hood, and it vexed many an ancient Greek philosopher.
Here’s Plutarch’s take:
The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places,
insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow;
one side [of philosophers] holding that the ship remained the same,
and the other contending that it was not.— Plutarch, Theseus
Thomas Hobbes doubled down on the question: what if you took all the old parts out, and then used them to rebuild the original ship?
Would you then have two ships of Theseus?
How could you tell which one was the real Ship of Theseus?
Plato addressed the question of “thingi-ness” through his notion of Forms. A Platonic Form is the True, transcendent essence of a thing, the True “is-ness” that exists behind the veil of local Space-Time, almost mathematical in its purity.
Meanwhile, a counter current was surging in the East:
What if there were no things?
This notion is central to Buddhist doctrine: our Minds create the appearance of permanence, of “things”.
Of all of the “things” we cling to, many of us cling most fiercely to “ourselves”, or sense of identity, even though:
- Our bodies (rupa) are constantly in flux.
- Our feelings (vedana) are constantly in flux.
- Our perceptions (samjana) are constantly in flux.
- Our thoughts and memories (samskhara) are constantly in flux.
- Even our consciousness (vijnana) is constantly in flux.
In Buddhism, these are called the five aggregates, or Skandhas, and while I haven’t done them justice in this brief description, the point of this exercise is (hopefully) clear:
Anything you can call “you” is constantly changing, from your physical to your mental selves.
The same is true for everyone, and every “thing” you know.
And that is why Buddhism claims that every “thing” is fundamentally Empty.
This is the meaning of the Buddhist term “Shunyata”.
It’s why they claim that we’re all empty too – no self, “Anatta” in Pali.
This is the Buddhist solution to the Paradox of the Ship of Theseus.
So, what is the Ship of Theseus?
And where is She headed?
And who’s the Buddha at the helm?
Absolutely No One.
Just like you and me.
Anatta floating on the Shunyata sea.
And if you get all of that, you’re ready to sail to the Distant Shore….